Last post, I referred to one of Fr. Michael Casey’s books that I read to the guests in our Retreat House. Another book I read to them is Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life by Mary Margaret Funk, OSB. Mary Margaret Funk is a member of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Beech Grove, Indiana, and this, her first book, translates the teaching of John Cassian into a contemporary idiom. My favorite paragraph in the book occurs in the first chapter:
I remember when I first discovered that the primary work of the monastery wasn’t apostolic service. It took me a few years after final vows to understand that I wasn’t called to the monastery simply to do ministry of teaching, nursing or pastoral services. I discovered that the primary purpose of Benedictine culture was to train one for the inner life. This ascetical life, this life of prayer, would naturally evolve into the fruit of hospitality and service.
I don’t intend to discuss the book here but to present the basic concept she offers and to consider it’s importance. Following the teaching of John Cassian, who lived and wrote and observed monastic discipline in the fifth century, is the simple proposition that bad or evil thoughts, unattended, can grow into evil desires and evil desires, unchecked, devolve into sins we act out. This was not a new idea nor was it Cassian’s invention; he was repeating what he learned from his tour of the Egyptian desert monks. The basic phenomenon is found in the writings of Evagrius Ponticus, in the fourth century and he may be repeating, in his own very systematic way, what he was taught. Does it seem too obvious an observation to put into words? Why is it so important?
I think Kathleen Norris put it quite well in her book, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life. She described inner experience where, I found, her staunch Protestant background met the juridical spirituality my on pre-Vatican II roots. She said, in effect, just because I don’t break the sixth commandment doesn’t mean I’m particularly pure. However, I may have been led to believe that is true: If I don’t commit adultery I must be a good Christian, right? But does that settle it? I can be smug and self-righteous but isn’t something still wrong? I might even be denying those little prurient thoughts that wiggle into the cracks. I might even push them away with a vigor that scorches everyone within a one yard radius of me but have I settled anything?
When I reduce sin to a question of breaking a law, all I need is enough hang-ups to behave properly to rise in my self-esteem. But is that really being good? A prayerful, reflective, experiential reading of St. Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 7, verses36-50, might lead me to wonder for more. That’s the passage about Simon the Pharisee who invites Jesus to a banquet, interrupted by an uninvited woman, a known sinner, who washes Jesus feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and anoints them with expensive ointment. Now there’s an inefficient, over-the-top gesture, embarrassing Simon as much as it would embarrass a Papal MC. However, Simon the Pharisee may have never done anything wrong but had he ever gotten anything right? In fact, Jesus gives him a little list of what he missed that this woman does with prodigal generosity. So much for a juridical spirituality in action!
In the desert tradition of the early monks and nuns, of Evagrius Ponticus and of John Cassian, the demons that tempt us are also spoken of as thoughts. Anyone this side of the Garden of Eden will be visited by thoughts that lead to no good. It’s part of the territory like field mice and centipedes on a farm. They even get in the house, don’t they? What do I do with them? I know if I just turn my back on them and pretend they’re not there, they come in through the cracks, the back door AND the front door as soon as I open it. But I can acknowledge their existence and decide not to feed them. I can analyze them, understand them and categorically reject them, eject them from the interior. If I do, I don’t confuse them with myself–they’re invaders–and I don’t let them settle in, nest and grow into fat desires. I consciously oppose them.
Not committing adultery does not mean I’m chaste. In fact, my thoughts are not chaste. Not committing murder does not mean I’m a gentle person. No, my thoughts are not gentle. I know some communities who have removed every violent word from the Psalter. However, we haven’t here. I may not have ever battered or knifed or killed anyone, but when I pray those psalms, pronouncing those violent words, I can’t pretend I’m any gentler than their author. My thoughts can be murderous.
A juridical spirituality–not breaking any law–can, in some cases, lead to scrupulosity. Did I observe the law accurately enough in sufficient detail? That’s a living hell of a neurosis! Guarding my thoughts is a whole other realm. I engage them, I look out for them, as I do for field mice in the house. I don’t have to be obsessed by them–I can just put our traps. I have not necessarily committed a sin, but I bring them to the forum of spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Reconciliation when they are like a toxin in my system. If the minister of the sacrament can give me pointers on how to deal with them, I have an antidote.
Vigilance over my thoughts, so bad thoughts do not become bad desires that lead to sin, is one such antidote.